By James Wong

Although being in the UK exposes me to the world of cheap cars and one of the world’s key automotive manufacturing hubs, nothing beats coming home to Singapore and actually gaining access to the cars that I want to sample now and then.

A couple of days back I had a go in the 1-Series hatchback in its most potent naturally aspirated form, the 130i 2-door hatch. Equipped with a six-speed slushbox, I was initially sceptical about the car’s capacity of entertain, especially when considering that these torque converter boxes sap a lot of power from the engine. However, as confirmed with a former experience, the gearbox felt very smooth, thoroughly modern and actually pairing very nicely with the inline-6 N52 engine.

The N52 has always been in my good books. First sampled when powering a E65 730Li, it felt eager and willing to pull the luxo-barge from low revs, culminating in a great I6 buzz as you stretch it to the limiter. It’s a free-revving engine that is not shy of its naturally aspirated credentials, reportedly being even more technologically advanced than the bi-turbo N54. It is one of the lightest engines around for the horsepower produced, largely due to its exotic material construction from magnesium and aluminum.

It’s been a while since I was behind the wheel of a good NA BMW, so I was understandably excited. This is no ordinary 130i; there has been money spent on BMW Performance parts (straight from the manufacturer themselves) and so the brakes, steering wheel, rims and exhaust all seem slightly more M-inspired than usual. With a twist of the ignition the engine comes to life and the I6 burble is unmistakable: beautiful in its linearity and consistency.

Headed over some bumpy roads, the stiffness of the suspension is felt, making the car feel taut and ‘together’, but perhaps not the best compromise of comfort and pace around. However that meant that cornering felt balanced (on a good road at least), the car feeling very tight and in tune with the inputs of the driver. It’s also fantastic that one of the inputs is so accurately fed by the driver – that is, the steering.

The first thing that struck me was how beautifully weighed the steering felt. Definitely a step above the steering in the X1 sDrive20i which I tried in the same week, and very, very close in feel to the 1M that it reminded me of it straightaway.

The torque of the engine is refreshing. There is no need for turbos in this engine to make good progress within start-stop traffic. In fact, it might be better for it as there is no lag to deal with when modulating the throttle. Power delivery is easy to manage, predictable and in abundance. There is not once where you feel you needed more. With 261bhp and 315Nm, that might explain why. Those are stellar figures for a NA engine.

All in, it’s a very complete car but I have to wonder if those rear seats are that bit too small for a hatchback. Then again, that’s what you pay for rear wheel drive in such a body I reckon. I would take this engine above the N54 for its throttle response alone, but also because it is so capable in its own right. The suspension is a tad too stiff, but it is not a deal breaker – although I would suspect modern BMWs like the F20 and F30 might ride better. As for the automatic – would the manual be better? This is one situation where it would be difficult to slice it as the gearbox is truly really rather capable. But I’ll still pick the car in manual.

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